If we know one thing about the Rockets, we know that James Harden and Dwight Howard absolutely need to start and finish games. It’s hard to feel confident about much beyond that, but there are a few elements of the rotation that seem set. Chandler Parsons is the primary option at small forward. Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin share point guard duties. It’s still a process, even in February, but that much has stopped changing. The power forward spot also looks to be a solved situation. Why, if we look at Houston’s tilt against the Phoenix Suns, we see the clear leader there. Terrence Jones has cemented his role as starter, and as such he’s finishing games… except he didn’t.
Donatas Motiejunas got the nod from head coach Kevin McHale to play the final, crucial minutes for the Rockets as they struggled to beat the Phoenix Suns. In the previous outing against the Golden State Warriors, McHale chose to give those same crucial minutes to Omri Casspi. After an impressive coming out party for Terrence Jones this season, something has happened. The seemingly-resolved battle for the power forward position is heating back up again, and Terrence Jones’ hold on that starting position looks anything but firm.
Since the All-Star Break, Terrence Jones has averaged a paltry 21 minutes per game. Given, three games is a particularly small sample size, but the dropoff is stark. He was previously averaging 28 minutes per game, and that includes a number of early season games in which he played very limited minutes. The bottom line is that he’s been recently demoted from starter minutes to backup minutes, and it’s opened a door everyone thought was locked. Why, then, is this door coming open?
The simple answer is that Jones isn’t shooting very well. His accuracy is wildly variant from game to game, though this isn’t at all unusual for a player at his position, much less one who shoots a number of threes. That’s an issue to be sure, but it’s one that the entire team shared with him for this entire season. Streaky shooting alone can’t account for this loss in faith by McHale.
The most likely answer is “Defense.” McHale likes to stand by his defense, and this Rockets team is no different despite the fact that the Rockets have struggled to reach much above an average defensive efficiency. Whether the reason was a specific performance or a change in dynamic after the All-Star break, things are up in the air. It’s like a trip back to July, before there was any clarity.
That lack of clarity might be the root cause. With so many options for power forward, the Rockets may now be willing to try unusual lineups to try to manage a changing array of opponents. Casspi, for instance, allows greater shooting but less strength. Motiejunas seems to be getting a solid hold on the team defensive scheme and may become a valuable post scorer. James Harden even got in on the sweepstakes, defending David Lee and opening the way for Lin to take his place at the shooting guard position.
Whether Kevin McHale can turn all the moving pieces in the right way remains to be seen. Whether Jones will hold onto his starting gig is also in question. With so many seemingly workable players able to slot in behind Jones, power forward by committee seems to be very much alive for now. With the unpredictable nature of Houston and their roster, there’s no way to predict what change in coming weeks. Jones may lose his position, he might lock himself in as the starter, or Robert Covington might blow our minds. We don’t know who the primary power forward is, but we know to expect the unexpected yet again.